The UCLA men’s basketball team was dealt its first on-court obstacle this week with an early-season tournament loss to Big East contender Georgetown.
While the Bruins ultimately battled back the following day and won a third-place game over Georgia, they nearly tallied their second straight loss with the lackluster and disorganized play they exhibited throughout Tuesday’s victory.
There are many positive aspects of UCLA’s team play that are coming together nicely as the team continues to gel, such as their team chemistry and ball movement; however, there are also many lacking elements—upholding intensity and making quick decisions—that the Bruins must amend before Pac-12 conference play begins in January.
Never mind the highly touted recruiting class and the high ranking in the Top 25—if this team isn’t able to effectively enact the necessary improvements, it will be another disappointing season for UCLA’s storied college basketball program.
It was only a year ago that the Bruins were ranked No. 17 in the preseason AP poll, finished 19-14 overall and 11-7 in a very average Pac-12 and missed the NCAA Tournament.
This year’s team is undoubtedly more talented, but it is destined for the same inadequacy of last year’s team if these crucial improvements aren’t made.
The Bruins may have some of the top incoming freshmen in the nation this season, but those talented players are nothing if they aren’t able to maintain focused intensity throughout each and every game.
Ben Howland is mainly accountable for the general demeanor of the team, and he may need to push the point a little further with his players, but it’s ultimately the players’ responsibility to keep up the intensity throughout the game.
The Bruins came out lackluster and sank to the level of their opponent in their game against Georgia. That lack of intensity and focus forced UCLA to face a five-point deficit and battle neck and neck with a team that it could have easily beaten.
Upholding intensity and maintaining perspective for the team’s overall goals is vital to the Bruins’ success this season. Merely because it was a third-place game that was poorly attended and unrewarded by a trophy shouldn’t change the entire mindset of the team.
It’s early in the season, but there are plenty things to work on in a game environment regardless of the opponent or score of the game, which the premier programs understand.
While UCLA inched past Georgia, Kansas, ranked only a slot above the Bruins in the national polls, beat up on Washington State (78-41) in its tournament game and kept high intensity and focus the entire game after a 29-point lead (50-21) at the half.
Achieving high intensity and staying at that level is what separates the great teams from the good teams.
It wouldn’t surprise Bruin fans to learn that UCLA is shooting under 30 percent from three-point land so far this season.
In their five games, the Bruins have posted a three-point shooting percentage of 29.7 percent (22-of-74), averaging a measly 4.4 threes per game. Their dismal performance from beyond the arc has them currently ranked 264th in the nation in three-point percentage.
The upside is that UCLA has plenty of capable three-point shooters, especially when freshman phenom Shabazz Muhammad, who averaged an even 50 percent in his first two games (3-of-6), is on the court.
While it’s early in the season and the Bruins still have eight games until conference play tips off, they need to be able to rely on their three-point shooting as an effective way to break down zone defenses.
As UCLA was reminded against Georgia, a 2-3 zone is extremely effective against a team whose perimeter shooting is lacking. Not only did it force the Bruins to take more outside shots, but it also stymied them and shut down their inside game.
Based on what we’ve seen so far, freshmen Jordan Adams and Shabazz Muhammad and sophomore Norman Powell will be the Bruins’ most prolific three-point shooters. As such, they’ll need to be able to hit threes with more consistency in order to keep the offense flowing.
Jordan Adams has the ball stripped away from him.
The Bruins’ starting lineup is comprised of two freshmen (Shabazz Muhammad and Kyle Anderson), and when Jordan Adams is in the game, there is a freshman majority on the court. However, you wouldn’t have to be told that they’re freshmen to know this; all you have to do is watch.
UCLA’s freshmen add monstrous talent to the team, but they are also experiencing their share of freshmen follies when it comes to their decision-making on the court.
Jordan Adams airmailing a pass the length of the court that was intercepted; Shabazz Muhammad driving into the lane out of control; Kyle Anderson running in transition and taking an unnecessary pull-up three with no one to rebound—the signs of inexperience are rampant.
It will take time for the freshmen to acclimate themselves to the collegiate game and the elevated level of decision-making that it warrants, but that acclimation must happen before Pac-12 play begins.
Having Kyle Anderson as a versatile backup point guard at 6’9” is a valuable advantage for the Bruins, but it is only an advantage if Anderson is capable of making the quick, smart decisions that a college-level point guard must make.
Game experience will be the ultimate mediator between the freshmen and their follies, but head coach Ben Howland must help guide the young players through the process.
Unfortunately, the freshmen aren’t the only Bruins struggling with decision-making on the team, and it will be a collective team effort to make quick, confident, smart decisions on the court.
UCLA looks promising this season with its new additions, but there is much work to be done before the Bruins tackle Pac-12 conference play.
While elements like three-point shooting and wise decision-making will probably even themselves out as the season progresses, the team needs to make an effort every game to stay focused and maintain intensity.
If they remained determined to win and consistently come out with fire in their eyes, the Bruins will be the team to beat in the Pac-12.